HONOLULU – Welcome to the PGA Tour, kid.
Now show me your grooves.
So went Aaron Goldberg’s bittersweet introduction to the big leagues after he fired a 63 at Turtle Bay to win Monday-qualifying for the Sony Open.
At the request of another Monday-qualifying hopeful, 57-year-old Champions Tour pro R.W. Eaks, who hadn’t played with Goldberg, an official approached the 24-year-old San Diego State product after the round and asked to examine his grooves.
(Square or U grooves are outlawed on Tour as per USGA rules starting in 2010, with the exception of Ping Eye 2s made before April 1990.)
Goldberg’s grooves conformed.
“I knew they were getting checked,” he said after shooting an even-par 70 in the third round at Waialae Country Club to remain one-over-par in his first Tour start, well before the last pairing of Ryan Palmer and Robert Allenby teed off. “But I thought that everyone was getting checked. I didn’t know until Tuesday that I was the only one.”
Eaks, whose nickname is “Gramps,” fired an impressive 65, but lost a playoff for the final spot in the Sony field to Spencer Levin. Still, the trip was not in vain, since Eaks is in the field for this week’s season-opening Champions Tour event, the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai, on the neighboring Big Island.
He did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.
Goldberg may have been the first to come under the microscope in the Tour’s new grooves era, but he won’t be the last. (In fact, Bob Estes and Dean Wilson engaged in a less civil exchange in the media later in the week.) And Goldberg shrugged off the incident, saying he never even knew who made the request, and that he might have been just as inquisitive if he were Eaks.
There was certainly no point in dwelling on it in Hawaii, where Goldberg was living the dream. His parents Bruce and Tanya flew in from San Diego on Friday, when Aaron survived double-bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes to make the cut on the number.
He was three under for the tournament, and figured birdies on 16 and 17 would put him at least near the lead. (A top-10 finish would get him into the San Diego Open in two weeks, a sweet perk considering Goldberg has no status on Tour.) Alas, he went out of bounds on the par-4 16th and then short-sided himself in a bunker on the par-3 17th, a position from which he blasted out 40 feet past the pin and three-putted. Rattled, he had to make a five-footer for par on the cupcake par-5 18th hole to make the cut.
“I wasn’t even thinking about the cut,” Goldberg said of his back-to-back doubles. “I was trying to get into contention. It was one really bad shot O.B., and then getting into a terrible spot where I had no way to stop the ball around the hole.”
Goldberg is trying not to be overly awed by his surroundings, to tell himself he belongs. He was medalist at the 2008 U.S. Amateur Public Links, a stroke ahead of a far more celebrated young pro, Rickie Fowler. The two were teammates at the 2008 Palmer Cup, the Ryder Cup-like competition in which American collegiate stars square off against their European counterparts.
Recruited to SDSU by then-coach Tim Mickelson, Goldberg has played a few casual rounds with Phil Mickelson at The Farms Golf Club in Rancho Santa Fe, where Goldberg is a member. He has his own giant tour bag with his name on it, and a head-to-toe endorsement deal with Titleist. His cap is embroidered with “AG” on the back.
“It’s played out about how I expected,” he said of his first 54 holes on Tour. “I knew I could compete out here.”
And yet there was no getting around the fact that Goldberg was in the same field as one of his childhood heroes, Davis Love III, or the fact that he simply would have had to turn around and fly home on Tuesday had he not Monday-qualified.
Some of the caddies at Waialae were more recognizable than the 5-foot-8 Goldberg, who hired a local, Ka Bully Duarte, as his own bagman. They met Monday, when Duarte caddied for one of the guys in Goldberg’s group at Turtle Bay.
Upon finishing his third round, Goldberg had to figure out where to stay Saturday night, since he disliked his chosen hotel and had checked out that morning.
Maybe the newness of it all was to blame for his 32 putts Thursday, when he shot even-par 70, or the fact that he’s failed to birdie the 18th hole all three times he played it.
“I’ve definitely not played how I’d like to,” he said. “I had a little stretch Friday when I played well, but other than that it’s been not great.”
As it turned out Goldberg didn’t even get to play the final round. Everyone at one-over or worse became the victims of the Tour’s relatively new Saturday cut. (MDF: Made cut, did not finish.) He made around $10,000 for his trouble.
Goldberg will tee it up at the San Diego Open Monday-qualifier at El Camino Country Club next week. At least he lives nearby, with his folks. The week after that he’ll try to Monday-qualify for the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles.
It’s a tough way to play, never knowing when or where he’ll get a chance, but now he’s had a taste of the Tour. He made the 36-hole cut and, oh, by the way, Fowler and U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover were among those who did not. Maybe he belongs.